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Shackleton's sailing ship - still intact after nearly 100 years?

by Lee Mylchreest on 17 Aug 2013
Endurance - crushed by the ice and sunk, but could be waiting there completely intact, according to some new science SW
Could Ernest Shackleton's sailing ship, the Endurance, crushed by Antarctic ice and abandoned by the crew almost a hundred years ago, be still intact and waiting to be discovered? Surely not, you say, after a hundred years it would have rotted on the ocean floor. But not so, say some modern scientists.

Ernest Shackleton's story is one of the most unlikely and inspirational in all of the history of sailing - how the crew survived to reach Elephant Island, how a small group led by Shackleton made one of the most amazing journeys in an open sailing boat to South Georgia sound the alarm, and how he came back many months later and rescued the crew.

The story is legendary and if the boat were intact, waiting to be discovered...what a find that would be!

According to findings published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B this week, a team of scientists studying the geographical distribution of wood-eating worms and whale bone-eating worms has now offered a new clue as to what Shackleton’s ship might look like after about 98 years on the ocean floor - and the answer could be: pretty good.

In fact, the oceans surrounding Antarctica may be littered with buried shipwrecks in pristine condition, new research suggests.

Researchers came to that conclusion after burying wood and bone at the depths of the Antarctic oceans and analyzing the handiwork of worms and mollusks more than a year later.

'The bones were infested by a carpet of red-plumed Osedax worms, which we have named as a new species — Osedax antarcticus — but the wood planks were untouched, with not a trace of the wood-eating worms,' study co-author Adrian Glover, an aquatic invertebrates researcher at the Natural History Museum in London, said in an email. 'The wood was hardly degraded either, after 14 months on the seafloor.'

That finding suggests that some of the most iconic shipwrecks — including the Endurance, the most famous ship to ever sail to Antarctica — could be perfectly preserved in the icy waters near the southern continent.

In any other ocean, wooden ships like the Endurance are quickly devoured by shipworms or wood-boring mollusks.

Antarctica, however, has been treeless for the last 30 million years. Instead, the region is teeming with whales and other cetaceans whose bones sink to the ocean floor. That raised the possibility that, whereas ocean dwellers feast on wood in other regions, local organisms may have adapted to devour bone in Antarctica.

To see how shipwrecks and animal bones fared in the Southern Ocean, the team created massive underwater landers that were loaded with whalebones and large planks of pine and oak, Glover said. They then placed those landers at three spots in the ocean along the western Antarctic Peninsula.

Fourteen months later, the team hoisted up the landers from the seafloor. The bones, which were riddled with holes, were covered in O. antarcticus. The wooden planks, in contrast, were untouched by wood-boring mollusks.

After analyses, the team found the worms were genetically related to the worms that live in sulfuric, oxygen-poor muds and use bacteria to break down their food.

'Perhaps, at some point after whales first appeared in the oceans, ancestral worms were able to make the evolutionary leap from sulphidic muds to whale carcasses,' Glover said, adding that fossil studies should help the researchers understand how that leap was made.

According to LiveScience.com, at least one group, Blue Water Recoveries, hopes to recover the Endurance shipwreck in the future.
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